Music theory in your piano lessons


A knowledge of classical piano theory allows you to think like a composer, with a more intimate understanding of your classical piano pieces.

Perhaps music theory doesn’t have the most exciting connotation. We’re musicians, after all, not academics. Classical piano theory takes a different light, though, when you begin to see the patterns and underlying elements that lie behind the emotional response we, as humans, have to music.

We already know the vocabulary of the musical language - our ears have learned it well through a lifetime of listening.

Through exploring classical piano theory we can learn why some sounds in music make us sad, and why others fill us with joy. We can learn how composers play with our expectations, creating tension and release. Our classical piano teachers can also teach you how to use this knowledge to your advantage in your interpretations of classical piano music.

Here are some of the theoretical concepts that you may learn about in your classical piano lessons:

  • Major and minor keys and scales: These are the starting point for a composer. A major or minor key and its corresponding scale represents everything that our ears expect to hear in music. A thorough knowledge of all 12 keys allows you to identify when and how a classical piano piece is challenging the listener by deviating from the basic tonality.

  • Time signatures and rhythms: In music there is almost always a basic pulse, a heartbeat. Classical piano composers begin by establishing a pulse, and then surprise us with syncopations and rhythmic changes. Think of rowing steadily down a stream, then suddenly tumbling down a waterfall.

  • Chords and harmony: When we play two or more notes on the piano simultaneously, we call this playing a chord, or more generally, the harmony. Through our previous experience listening to music our ears have come to know some sounds as pretty and calming, and others as tense as nails on a chalkboard. The important fact is that there are no “good” and “bad” sounds - every possible chord is a composer’s tool for creating tension (or dissonance) and release (or consonance). Typically, the greater the tension is, the more satisfying is the feeling of release that follows it.

  • Form and the overall picture: Over the course of classical piano history, piano composers have established common compositional forms that repeat over time. These are commonly described using letters: an ABA form is one that starts and ends with similar material, with a contrasting section in the middle. Familiarity with the large sections of the classical piano pieces you’re learning to play allows you to better interpret the overall story of the piece - like directing a 3-act play, with a beginning, middle, and end.

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